A few years ago I was walking around my neighborhood filled with Christmas lights. I stopped at a house I always admired. It was decorated in white twinkling lights, wooden soldiers standing guard on their steps, a life sized Santa in the yard, big red bows adorning the doors.
My mind replayed Christmas Eve festivities as a child. Every year my family gathered, cooked a huge meal of fish, pasta, and of course desserts. I got to see cousins and friends who I felt safe with. I loved this holiday as it was a break from the loneliness I felt daily. It meant hope, for gifts, for connection, for a new year. And of course, it was a break from school. Although I loved learning, I felt isolated and disconnected from my classmates, not knowing how to make friends.
I was shy. At least part of me was shy. In school, I hardly spoke. But here now, with friends and cousins another part was laughing, talking, and having fun. I relished in the feelings of warmth and comfort that this part experienced.
I noticed a sharp pain developing in my arm. And, the scenes of festivities began to morph into flashes of times I had been alone on the same holiday.
There was plenty of material to draw upon. I was sick with chronic illnesses, depression and heartache and this demanded all my attention. Being around family and friends had been overwhelming for some time, and I spent my holidays with my symptoms, and thoughts, cuddled up on a couch engrossed in these stories.
On this night, the memories of these times of loneliness came with scripts playing in my mind, about how “unloved” I was and “rightfully so.” I “deserved” it. The sharp pain in my arm increased. I was used to these background scenes playing in my mind and body, usually they became the main show and the part inside that began sobbing, the main character.
I continued walking completely unaware of the beauty around me, stuck in hurt and sickness, sobbing. My pace quickened, wanting to be home as tears streamed down my face. “Please stop, please leave me alone”, I found myself saying. I was used to negative thoughts coming, and being swept away in flashbacks. But, I was trying to resist these feelings and the more I did, the more the pain intensified and the deeper I fell into the past.
I remembered work I had been doing with certain “parts.” I had been in therapy for quite some time, trying to manage a body and heart that had been broken. I began to whisper to myself “I know, I see you, I am sorry you feel this way I am here”, directed at the inner part of me holding all this hurt. I continued with saying “thank you”, for all it was doing for me and holding for me.
As I spoke I brought my attention to the sharp pain in my arm, and noticed my elbow was moving slightly back and forth. My words seemed to increase the motion and I let it, until it began to swing back and forth while my hand laid closed fist against my left thigh.
My tears increased with the pain and the outer world decreased ; a backdrop to the drama inside. I spoke to the inner hurt part, the arm flailing back and forth and watched as it became angry with a closed fist punching into the air. As I punched, I noticed the pain and tears decreasing and anger had taken the place of hurt. “It is not fair”, a voice inside said and I agreed.
It wasn’t fair.
I had worked with “parts” as well as creating a new relationship with my body for some time. I was learning to listen and speak to it and in doing so, was able to create space between me and the “part”
WHAT IS PARTS WORK
Parts work (Internal Family Systems) is a therapeutic approach created by Richard Schwartz. The internal world is a family of different parts created long ago and getting to know the parts from the energy of “self” can lead to a greater capacity to hold them and not be enmeshed with them.
As I learned to know and understand the different parts of me contained in my body, I could pause to distance myself from it and give it compassion and love. It was in this space I would be able to carry the “protectors”, “exiles” rather than become and act like them.
As the holidays approach, parts of us may become activated leading to increased suffering. IFS therapy offers steps to work with these parts, FIND, FOCUS, FLESH OUT, BEFRIEND, FEAR.
Below, I summarize and explain steps based on my own experience with IFS and also Somatic Experiencing.
STEPS TO PARTS WORK
ACCESSING THE SELF.
Knowing that within all of us are different parts created long ago to navigate the world around us allows for this access.These parts were created for our benefit. They all have positive intentions and connecting with self energy does not negate or “get rid” of them, just allows for a different relationship with them.
Self energy consists of 8 C’s- creativity, compassion, curiosity, courage, calm, clarity, connectedness, and confidence. From a somatic perspective, the body feels lighter when in self energy, the mind less cluttered, and deep breaths are accessed.
Accessing self energy was the most difficult for me, as I had deep resistance. Some of the way I did this was different grounding methods like visualizations, vagus nerve exercises, and even just titration (building up to), However, sometimes it is just about knowing and accepting.
The knowledge that the parts were there already placed me in self energy for a few seconds. Accepting that this did not mean my parts were being banished or were “bad”, it just meant I could get some space for a bit. Practicing the observing of different parts helped me to titrate the experience holding it longer and longer.
If it is very difficult to access SELF energy, working with an IFS trained therapist can be helpful as well as a somatic experiencing practitioner who can help build capacity to hold challenging emotions and sensations in the body.
FINDING THE PART THAT HAS SHOWN UP
Where is it? What part is needing attention. How do you know? What are the signs? Understanding when and what the signs that you are “triggered” can help to take a pause and get to know the parts activated. How do you feel about that part? If there are strong feelings, see if you can put it to the side for just a bit. If other parts come up and show resistance, acknowledge them and show gratitude towards them, but see if they too can just allow you focus on the part you originally found.
FOCUSING ON THE PART
Turning your attention to the internal world and the part that has shown up.
Acknowledge and show gratitude to the part from SELF energy. These various parts have been working for a positive intent. Maybe you can identify where in the body the part is, what it looks like, what it feels like. Are there any sensations in the body showing up with this part?
Getting to know this part can help you discover what its intentions were, when it was created, where, how old it is, and why it was created. Besides these questions you can ask, “What would you do if you didn’t do this job”? “What else do you want me to know?”
What is the part afraid of? What does it want for you? What would happen if it stopped working for you? Asking questions like this from self energy can help develop a relationship with this part, rather than resist it, or try to push it away.
My conversations began with less questions and more somatically to get to know what the sensations that came with the part were. On this night, I noticed the sharp pain. Working with sensations in the body is part of somatic experience.
Somatic experiencing can lead to healing of different parts that are holding tension in the body. For me, the inner child was attached to this pain in my arm that wanted to express a motion of “fight” energy. When I allowed the fight energy to come out the pain dulled for a bit.
WHAT IS SOMATIC EXPERIENCING?
Somatic experiencing created by Dr. Peter Levine helps to heal symptoms of trauma by paying attention to the body and the sensations that come up. Somatic experiencing follows a SIBAM model to help the body process trauma and build a capacity to handle challenging sensations.
There are different exercises and practices in somatic experiencing and working with a facilitator can be helpful. A facilitator can help allow one to notice the ways the body is speaking in movement and non movement.
HERE IS A SHORT PRACTICE FOR USING SE:
1. The first step is to NOTICE. Sitting with eyes closed or half closed, notice any sensations that are coming up. What does your body feel like? What sensation is demanding your attention? It can be very subtle, not necessarily strong. What does it feel like? Is there a quality to the sensation? Is there a color? Texture? Is it moving or still? Where is it located?
Observe the sensation without getting enmeshed into it.
2. What happens as you observe the sensation? What do you notice? Does it stay the same? Increase? Decrease?
3. Are there any images that come to mind? What are they? Can you observe those?
4. Does your body feel like doing anything here ? What behavior would it like to express? Can you let it?
5. What do you notice about your affect? What emotions are attached to this sensation if any?
6. What is the meaning you give to this sensation? In other words what comes up as the story behind it.
7. Take a look around your environment and find something pleasant to focus on. Allow your eyes to take it in like magnets and feel the pleasant sensation throughout your body. This is called resourcing which helps to interrupt and ground after working with a challenging sensation. It canbe done using sight, or focusing on anything pleasant using the five senses. What do you hear that is pleasant? Feel? Smell? Taste? Allow the positive in the outer world move through your body.
I used both somatic experiencing and parts work to deal with the “triggers” that night. It was just a few minute conversation and “practice” that helped to create a new relationship with myself. Through a somatic lens, I noticed which part was holding the sensation and the meaning behind it. Using this somatic lens and dealing with sensations that come up as a part wanting to be heard, can help integrate both practices. And, while it can be a longer practice and works best with a facilitator to guide, I have found even a few seconds of stepping into a higher self to distance from , and communicate with the “part” holding sensations to allow for acceptance and healing.